Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgement without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgement! (verses 12-13)
These verses provide such an interesting juxtaposition of contrasts.Law and freedom. Mercy and judgement. Act as if you’re going to be judged, we’re told, yet live in freedom.
This passage spills out of a discussion of favouritism in the preceding verses. Don’t do it, James says. Don’t favour the rich and marginalize the poor. Extend equal grace equally to all without preference. Don’t allow the external realities of a person’s life to determine the treatment you give them.
Or, as James goes on to say, “Love your neighbour as yourself,”taking the second great commandment and putting it into practice (2:8). Which, of course, fits well with Jesus’ own commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34).
So how do these laws give freedom? And how does mercy relate?
I think James is intentionally reminding us of Jesus’ teaching regarding obedience and freedom. If we obediently hold to the teaching he gives, abiding in it just as a fruitful branch does in the vine, Jesus says we will truly know truth, and the truth will set us free (John 8:31-32). It’s Jesus’ iron-clad promise.
Later, he tells his disciples to “remain” in his love (using the same word he uses for “holding” to his teaching and for “abiding” in the vine) – do so by obeying my commands, he says. Specifically, he reminds them, once again, of his command to “love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:9-12). He has other commands, too, but this command is foundational.
This is where mercy comes into the equation. If we’re to love like Jesus, we need mercy. To love like him requires setting aside judgement of others, again and again, and lavishly applying doses of mercy instead. Jesus’ love cost something. So will ours. Mercy is the price – mercy that triumphs over judgement.
So, Jesus’ law of love requires mercy that sets aside judgement. When we embrace this command, abiding in it, we are set free. We find in this, together with all his teaching, the “perfect law that gives freedom” (James 1:25).
Law and freedom. Mercy over judgement.
Frederick Buechner adds a powerful insight. “The old prayer speaks of God ‘in whose service is perfect freedom.’ The paradox is not as opaque as it sounds. It means that to obey Love himself, who above all else wishes us well, leaves us the freedom to be the best and gladdest that we have it in us to become” (Wishful Thinking, p 30).
Praise his name. Gladly will I submit to the law that gives freedom. Gladly will I extend mercy, that I, too, may receive. Gladly will I love like Jesus, extending mercy and grace equally to all.
Lord Jesus, help me. Help me to abide in your commandments. Above all, you tell me, keep loving one another earnestly. Empower me by your Spirit to do so. Let me so abide in mercy that I extend it, without reserve, to those around me, especially when I am tempted towards judgement. Fill me with your very own presence. To your glory. Amen.
Reflect: Mercy is often needed where it is most difficult to extend. Are you experiencing that difficulty in any of your relationships? How will you respond?
Photo by Ronê Ferreira: https://www.pexels.com/.../close-up-photo-of-red-neon.../